Anthropology Indigenous Media: Currents of Engagement
Kristin Dowell, Sabra Thorner, Gabriela Zamorano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0281


This bibliography is organized around the question of how media are integral to contemporary productions of Indigenous sovereignty in local, state-based, and transnational contexts. Media, defined here as collaborative forms of communication and expression, include film, television, video, radio, and, increasingly, art, photography, archiving, digital technologies, journalism, and other vernacular forms. Indigenous sovereignty refers to the distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples in relation to their actively maintained modes of being in the world, including both an embodied sense of connectedness to kin, community, and lands, as well as histories of dispossession and legacies of settler colonialism. Since the early 1990s, anthropologists, in collaboration with Indigenous scholars, makers, producers, artists, and curators, have been exploring how media-making is a form of cultural and political activism. Building on extensive previous work in this area, this annotated bibliography foregrounds key works produced within the last ten-plus years, primarily from Latin America, North America, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the Pacific. We focus on audiovisual media because our own experiences have been grounded in these forms—precisely because of their popularity and accessibility, their potential to be recontextualized, and their immersive power. At the same time, we suggest that the expanding uses of digital technologies productively blur the boundaries between diverse media, and our work here attempts to honor the innovations we have witnessed on these fronts. Rather than organizing sections according to specific media forms or geographical regions, we instead write against the grain to think critically about similarities as well as differences across our respective fields. Utilizing a curatorial approach, we chose to work on “currents of engagement,” namely, core themes and conversations that Indigenous media-makers are dynamically and deeply engaged with. Like the media and the media-makers with and about whom we write, our collaborative work on this annotated bibliography seeks to challenge existing frames. This approach calls attention to how Indigenous media and scholarship circulate within and beyond national and regional boundaries, and highlights differences of infrastructure, funding, institutional resources, and cultural policy. Our focus on visual sovereignty involves reflecting on how Indigenous peoples are building collective visions of the future through diverse media, while also confronting past colonial violence through reimagining and intervening in the archives. We emphasize storytelling as a form of Indigenous knowledge production that counters the marginalization and erasure of women in dominant narratives. Finally, we conclude with a section that maps out recent resources for further research. The dynamic field of global Indigenous media is always expanding, and there are many films and publications that were released after the completion of our thinking- and writing-together, yet before the online publication of this work. We encourage students and scholars to write about these, and we look forward to witnessing and engaging with the continuing creativity, inventiveness, and activism in future work by Indigenous media-makers. All three authors contributed equally to this work; and we thank Alberto Flores for his research assistance at the end of this project.

Visual Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty is usually understood in relation to legal regimes within modern nation-states; however, Indigenous media scholars have extended this concept to explore Indigenous self-determination through cultural and aesthetic practices. First attributed to the scholarship of art historian and artist Jolene Rickard (see Rickard 2011), visual sovereignty highlights the complex ways in which Indigenous artists enact sovereignty within cultural frameworks specific to their nations through their artistic expression. Indigenous media scholar Michelle Raheja expanded upon this idea in Raheja 2011 to explain the ways in which Native American filmmakers and actors dispute and reconfigure conventions and stereotypes through their engagements with media. In dialogue with these scholars and others, Dowell 2013 explains visual sovereignty as the ways in which media production informs Indigenous community practices and identities on- and off-screen. Visual sovereignty signals self-determination, control over the means of media production, and the cultural authority to tell Indigenous stories from Indigenous perspectives—i.e., “nothing about us without us.” Cocq and DuBois 2020 examines this in the intersection between Sámi media production and Sámi projects of cultural and political self-determination. In Australia, visual sovereignty is expressed in a robust field of Indigenous film and television productions, in academic literature, and in contemporary art exhibitions. Akama, et al. 2017; Miyarrka Media 2019; and Thorner, et al. 2018 assert that Indigenous sovereignty is unceded, inalienable, and reproduced by various cultural and aesthetic productions. This is increasingly driven by Indigenous academic-activists working to control and direct representations of themselves, their lives, their communities, and their connections to land, ancestors, and kin. In Latin America, the concept of autonomy (autonomía) is used in similar ways to explain Indigenous claims for self-determination (autodeterminación), which include gaining visibility through media practices, with much of this work grappling with the challenges of decolonization. Graham 2016 examines representational sovereignty among A’uwẽ-Xavante communities in Brazil. Muenala 2018 looks at uses of Indigenous media as processes of self-representation that “update” ethnic senses of identity among Kichwa Otavalo media-makers in Ecuador. Wortham 2013 analyzes Indigenous media as strategies to gain autonomy in the context of indigenista and multicultural states within Oaxaca, Mexico. We don’t wish to define or delimit sovereignty, in fact it’s crucial to all of us (and our ongoing work with Indigenous collaborators) to resist this tendency and instead support Indigenous media-makers’ self-definitions and expansive, dynamic views of visual sovereignty.

  • Akama, Yoko, Debra Evans, Seth Keen, Faye McMillan, Mark McMillan, and Peter West. 2017. Designing digital and creative scaffolds to strengthen Indigenous nations: Being Wiradjuri by practising sovereignty. Digital Creativity 28.1: 58–72.

    DOI: 10.1080/14626268.2017.1291525

    Article by an Indigenous and non-Indigenous interdisciplinary team in media, communications, design, education, and law. Premise: Indigenous Australians are sovereign and have never ceded their lands, rights, or identities; Indigenous sovereignty does not need to be asserted or constructed, it just IS. “Digital and creative scaffolds” are assemblages—in this project, including social media, printed media, websites, radio broadcasts, and a digital platform—that are “infrastructuring” (expressing and practicing) Wiradjuri sovereignty.

  • Cocq, Coppélie, and Thomas A. DuBois. 2020. Sámi media and Indigenous agency in the Arctic North. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

    This landmark book examines how Sámi people in Norway, Finland, and Sweden use media to support projects of cultural continuity and self-determination through a range of media, from feature films to YouTube music videos to Twitter hashtags. The book is organized around Sámi snow terminology corresponding to different moments in the movement for Sámi cultural, linguistic, and communication rights, and in their connections to global Indigenous social movements.

  • Dowell, Kristin. 2013. Sovereign screens: Aboriginal media on the Canadian west coast. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1ddr6vg

    The first book to focus on the vibrant and dynamic Indigenous media world in Vancouver, including community media organizations and avant-garde art centers, as well as national cultural policy and media institutions. Investigating the active processes through which Indigenous filmmakers and artists visualize Indigenous stories, cultural knowledge, and aesthetic traditions, Dowell focuses on how they express and enact visual sovereignty through their on-screen aesthetics and off-screen production practices.

  • Graham, Laura. 2016. Toward representational sovereignty: Rewards and challenges of Indigenous media in the A’uwẽ-Xavante communities of Eténhiritipa-Pimentel Barbosa. Media and Communication 4.2: 13–32

    DOI: 10.17645/mac.v4i2.438

    Graham is one of the actors who introduced video cameras in A’uwẽ-Xavante communities in Brazil in the early 1990s, and an anthropologist who has studied this region for three decades. Analyzing the uses of audiovisual media by different generations, including the uses of social media by youth, she concludes that this media history contributes to representational sovereignty processes while also generating challenges in terms of economic access and precarious archival conditions.

  • Miyarrka Media. 2019. Phone & spear: A Yuṯa anthropology. London: Goldsmiths Press.

    Innovative ethnography written by an arts/media collective in northern Australia, making an argument for and striving to exemplify the creative potential of collaborative co-production, of bringing different cultural worlds into relationship. Relationships and reflexivity are foregrounded, as multivocal text and vibrant images invite readers to see and feel how the remix/remediation of cell-phone and digital photographs renew Yolngu worlds.

  • Muenala, Yauri. 2018. Kikinkunawan, visualidades comunes: La autorrepresentación en la práctica audiovisual de realizadores kichwa-otavalos. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Abya-Yala.

    Written by one of the few Indigenous scholars working on media in Latin America, this book presents an ethnographic analysis of the sociocultural context in which Kichwa Otavalo media-makers, organized into the Runacinema group, imagine, re-enact, and “update” their Indigenous identities. In this way, filmmaking practices become sites of exchange and collective reflection.

  • Raheja, Michelle. 2011. Reservation reelism: Redfacing, visual sovereignty and representations of Native Americans in film. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1dfnrq6

    This groundbreaking work is a core foundational text in the articulation and theorization of visual sovereignty as a frame for analyzing Indigenous media. Focusing on the role of Native actors, directors, and spectators who helped to shape Hollywood representations of Native Americans, Raheja reveals their contributions and agency in their efforts to reclaim the screen and create media representations reflecting the diversity and complexity of Native peoples and communities.

  • Rickard, Jolene. 2011. Visualizing sovereignty in a time of biometric sensors. South Atlantic Quarterly 110.2: 465–486.

    DOI: 10.1215/00382876-1162543

    Theorizes visual sovereignty as cultural conditions specific to Haudenosaunee and Tuscarora philosophy, political action, artistic expression, and ways of being. Rickard argues that sovereignty is an “Indigenous tradition whose work is strategically never done” (p. 478). Rickard further argues that sovereignty should be theorized through local Native identities while creating a framework to interpret the work of Indigenous artists, with potential to shift consciousness within Indigenous communities and surrounding settler colonial nations.

  • Thorner, Sabra, Fran Edmonds, Maree Clarke, and Paola Balla. 2018. Maree’s backyard: Intercultural collaborations for Indigenous sovereignty in Melbourne. Oceania 88.3: 269–291.

    DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5206

    Article argues for Indigenous sovereignty in Australia’s Southeast, the region most devastated by colonial incursion and a site of vibrant contemporary cultural activism. Two ethnographic examples: Maree Clarke’s backyard, in which Indigenous knowledge directs intercultural encounters; and Sovereignty, a 2016–2017 exhibition co-curated by Paola Balla and Max Delany, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Emphasis: art/culture-making and storytelling are crucial forms of Indigenous knowledge production, led by Indigenous women.

  • Wortham, Erica Cusi. 2013. Indigenous media in Mexico: Culture, community and the state. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822378273

    A vast ethnography of the development of Indigenous media practices and tensions in Oaxaca, Mexico, from the late 1980s on. The book discusses Indigenous media-makers’ embedding or postura in light of self-determination struggles, and the complex relationship between the state and Indigenous peoples marked by the history of indigenismo and current multicultural neoliberalism.

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